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'Natural' disasters and forced displacement in the context of climate change

Source(s):  Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Headquarters (OCHA)

Policy brief based on the findings of the forthcoming OCHA-IDMC study

'Natural' disasters are one of the principal causes of forced displacement. Climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, and the numbers of reported natural disasters and those affected are rising. However, the actual scale of displacement caused by climate-related natural disasters is still largely unknown. The lack of reliable estimates of disaster-related forced displacement makes it difficult for policy makers to take it into account in the context of climate change adaptation. The OCHA-IDMC study Natural disasters and forced displacement in the context of climate change develops an estimate of forced displacement related to natural disasters in 2008, and proposes a methodology for monitoring disaster-related forced displacement on an annual basis.

Based on an agreed inter-agency typology, the study identified four climate change-related drivers of migration and displacement: 1) Sudden-onset extreme disaster / hazard events (e.g. storms and floods); 2) Slow-onset extreme disaster / hazard events (eg: drought or severe environmental degradation); 3) Significant permanent losses in state territory as a result of sea level rise; 4) Armed conflict/ violence over shrinking natural resources. This study focuses primarily on the first category – displacement related to sudden-onset extreme disaster / hazard events. Table 1 shows the typology of climate change impacts in terms of migration and displacement, with the results from this study along with some estimates of displaced or affected from other sources.

The findings show that at least 36 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2008. Of those, over 20 million were displaced by climate-related disasters, while almost 16 million were displaced by non-climate-related disasters. Despite its limitations, the results provide a useful indication of the scale of forced displacement as a result of sudden-onset natural disasters in the context of climate change. The number of 20 million displaced can for example be compared to the 4,6 million newly internally displaced by conflict inthe same period. In addition to the 20 million displaced by climate-related sudden-onset natural disasters,are many million more displaced due to the other climate change-related drivers. It is therefore vital that evolving frameworks for climate change adaptation address displacement issues.

Currently, there is no single mechanism to systematically track disaster-related displacement. A three-step methodology was developed in this study to identify the numbers of persons displaced. Continued systematic collation of such data is recommended in the future to improve global understanding of trends in human mobility.

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  • Publication date 08 Jun 2009

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